Japan spacecraft carrying asteroid soil samples nears home

TOKYO (AP) — A Japanese spacecraft is nearing Earth after a yearlong journey home from a distant asteroid with soil samples and data that could provide clues to the origins of the solar system, a space agency official said Friday.

The Hayabusa2 spacecraft left the asteroid Ryugu, about 300 million kilometers (180 million miles) from Earth, a year ago and is expected to reach Earth and drop a capsule containing the precious samples in southern Australia on Dec. 6.

Scientists at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency believe the samples, especially those taken from under the asteroid’s surface, contain valuable data unaffected by space radiation and other environmental factors.


Makoto Yoshikawa, a Hayabusa2 project mission manager, said scientists are especially interested in analyzing organic materials in the Ryugu soil samples.

“Organic materials are origins of life on Earth, but we still don*t know where they came from,” Yoshikawa said. “We are hoping to find clues to the origin of life on Earth by analyzing details of the organic materials brought back by Hayabusa2.”

JAXA, the space agency, plans to drop the capsule containing the samples onto a remote, sparsely populated area in Australia from 220,000 kilometers (136,700 miles) away in space, a big challenge requiring precision control. The capsule, protected by a heat shield, will turn into a fireball during re-entry in the atmosphere at 200 kilometers (125 miles) above ground. At about 10 kilometers (6 miles) above ground, a parachute will open to prepare for landing, and beacon signals will be transmitted to indicate its location.

JAXA staff have set up satellite dishes at several locations in the target area to catch the signals, while also preparing marine radar, drones and helicopters to assist in the search and retrieval mission.

Without those measures, a search for the pan-shaped capsule with a diameter of 40 centimeters (15 inches) “would be an extremely difficult,” Yoshikawa told reporters.

For Hayabusa2, it’s not the end of the mission it started in 2014. After dropping the capsule, it will return to space and head to another distant small asteroid called 1998KY26 on a journey slated to take 10 years.

Hayabusa2 touched down on Ryugu twice, despite its extremely rocky surface, and successfully collected data and samples during the 1½ years after it arrived there in June 2018.

In the first touchdown in February 2019, it collected surface dust samples. In July, it collected underground samples from the asteroid for the first time in space history after landing in a crater that it had earlier created by blasting the asteroid’s surface.

Scientists said there are traces of carbon and organic matter in the asteroid soil samples. JAXA hopes to find clues to how the materials are distributed in the solar system and are related to life on Earth.

Asteroids, which orbit the sun but are much smaller than planets, are among the oldest objects in the solar system and therefore may help explain how Earth evolved.

It took the spacecraft 3½ years to arrive at Ryugu,

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Japan aims for zero emissions, carbon neutral society by 2050: PM

By Elaine Lies



a man wearing a suit and tie: Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga gives his first policy speech in parliament in Tokyo


© Reuters/KIM KYUNG-HOON
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga gives his first policy speech in parliament in Tokyo

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan is aiming to cut greenhouse gases to zero by 2050 and become a carbon-neutral society, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said on Monday as he unveiled a major shift in position on climate change.



a crowd of people in a room: Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga gives his first policy speech in parliament in Tokyo


© Reuters/KIM KYUNG-HOON
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga gives his first policy speech in parliament in Tokyo

Japan had previously said it would be carbon neutral as soon as possible in the second half of the century, rather than set an explicit date.

“Responding to climate change is no longer a constraint on economic growth,” Suga said in his first policy address to parliament since taking office last month.

“We need to change our thinking to the view that taking assertive measures against climate change will lead to changes in industrial structure and the economy that will bring about great growth.”



a man and a woman standing in front of a curtain: Japan's Emperor Naruhito wearing a protective face mask speaks during the opening of an extraordinary session of parliament in Tokyo


© Reuters/KIM KYUNG-HOON
Japan’s Emperor Naruhito wearing a protective face mask speaks during the opening of an extraordinary session of parliament in Tokyo

Japan’s target of no greenhouse gases emissions on a net basis by 2050 brings it into line with the European Union, which set a target of being carbon neutral by that same date last year. Chinese President Xi Jinping in September pledged to make his country “carbon neutral” by 2060.



a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Lawmakers keeping social distancing bow toward Japan's Emperor Naruhito during the opening of an extraordinary session of parliament in Tokyo


© Reuters/KIM KYUNG-HOON
Lawmakers keeping social distancing bow toward Japan’s Emperor Naruhito during the opening of an extraordinary session of parliament in Tokyo

Japan is the world’s fifth-biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, and while steps are being taken to increase renewable energy, it also plans to roll out new coal-burning power stations.

Later, Industry Minister Hiroshi Kajiyama told a news conference that plans for attaining key parts of the goal would be drawn up by the end of the year.

“Carbon neutrality itself is a growth strategy, and we must carry it out with all we have,” he added.

To achieve its goals, Suga said new solar cells and carbon recycling would be key, and Japan would intensify research and development in those areas, along with digitalising society – a policy he has pushed since taking over from Shinzo Abe.

The announcement was cheered by policy makers and investors.

“Japan joining the EU in targeting carbon neutrality by 2050 is very welcome, and so is PM Suga’s focus on green technologies and especially solar, as a growth driver,” said Eric Pedersen, Nordea Asset Management’s head of responsible investment.



a group of people standing next to a person in a suit and tie: Japan's Emperor Naruhito wearing a protective face mask arrives to the opening of an extraordinary session of parliament in Tokyo


© Reuters/KIM KYUNG-HOON
Japan’s Emperor Naruhito wearing a protective face mask arrives to the opening of an extraordinary session of parliament in Tokyo

But he also warned that Japan would need to start decommissioning coal power and stop building and financing new coal power abroad.

In a nod to Japan’s deep economic ties with giant neighbour China, Suga said a stable bilateral relationship was essential – but also said that Japan would maintain contact with “all like-minded nations for a

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